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Postal powers through spray to win Tour TTT

The smiles of Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team said it all and then some on a day that was bleak, stormy and awfully miserable for most. By blazing a trail through the shadows of a wet day in northern France to win today's 64.5km stage 4 team time trial from Cambrai to Arras, they told every rival that Armstrong was the right stuff, and so was the entire line-up. Armstrong said as much after his team finished with eight of nine riders, at an average speed of 53.71kmh, following a winning ride that saw them fight back from fifth place at the first time check of 19km. “We

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Armstrong dons yellow jersey

By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

Postal pounded to the win despite horrific conditions

Postal pounded to the win despite horrific conditions

Photo: AFP

Back in his favorite color

Back in his favorite color

Photo: Graham Watson

The smiles of Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team said it all and then some on a day that was bleak, stormy and awfully miserable for most.

By blazing a trail through the shadows of a wet day in northern France to win today’s 64.5km stage 4 team time trial from Cambrai to Arras, they told every rival that Armstrong was the right stuff, and so was the entire line-up.

Armstrong said as much after his team finished with eight of nine riders, at an average speed of 53.71kmh, following a winning ride that saw them fight back from fifth place at the first time check of 19km.

“We started a little slow, got behind,” he said. “Maybe some of the guys were a little nervous. But it is a sign of a great team that when they are down, they fight back,” he said.

U.S. Postal won the stage in one hour, 12 minutes and three seconds, beating the Swiss Phonak team led by American Tyler Hamilton, which finished with five of nine riders, by 1:07. Third place went to the Spanish Illes Balears squad led by Russian Denis Menchov, which had seven riders, at 1:08 back.

However, the effect of the stage results on overall classification was different – and controversial – because of the implementation of new TTT rules that were similar to those used in 1984. Stage times were still recorded on the fifth-placed rider to finish, but each team and its riders were awarded a maximum deficit according to their team’s place. The maximum for second was 20 seconds, third 30 seconds, fourth 40 seconds and fifth 50 seconds, down to a maximum of three minutes for riders in the 21st placed team.

As a result, the time gain on overall classification awarded to Armstrong today was not as much as it would have been under the conventional system used until last year – despite his team winning by nearly 90 seconds.

Armstrong’s teammates now hold second to fifth place overall, but his nearest dangers now are Hamilton, who is eighth at 36 seconds, and Ullrich, who is 16th at 55 seconds.

The Texan, previously a vocal opponent to the timing rule, was more philosophical in victory today, believing the collective effort to go all out still paid handsome dividends.

“Those are the rules. You can’t change them,” said Armstrong who tomorrow will tie fellow five-time champion Miguel Indurain’s career mark of 60 days in the yellow jersey. “You see you have one minute and seven seconds on the next team, at least you have the consolation that you know your team was very strong. You leave with 20 seconds, but also with the knowledge that you have the best team in the race.”

Postal poured it on as the rain poured down

Postal poured it on as the rain poured down

Photo: Graham Watson

Armstrong said he will not set out to defend the yellow jersey in tomorrow’s fifth stage, nor during the next days leading up to the Pyrénées, because it would place too much pressure on his team.

“I would like to hang onto it, but it is probably not in the best interests of the team,” said Armstrong. “This is a hard race to defend, and right now we have to consider the strength of the team and try to preserve them for the second half (of the Tour.)

“You never know what happens. If the sprinters’ teams are interested in keeping the race together, certain things can happen. But we are not going to sacrifice the team to defend the yellow jersey in the north of France. The time to work and defend begins in the Pyrénées.”

As impressive as U.S. Postal Service was today, the team also was blessed by racing in the best of the wet, slippery and tricky conditions, which provoked falls by many of the riders from others team who raced earlier in the day. Particularly difficult was the last left-hand corner with about 300 meters to go, which was paved with glistening cobblestones that led all the way, slightly uphill, to the finish line.

Only four teams finished with their full complements of riders, and all were lowly ranked with only eight men. Spaniard Iban Mayo’s Euskaltel-Euskadi team was eighth at 2:25, but Fasso Bortolo placed 17th at 4:52, while the Lotto-Domo team of yellow-jersey wearer Robbie McEwen was 18th at 5:19 seconds and Cofidis 19th at 5:34.

Phonak took second despite shelling three riders

Phonak took second despite shelling three riders

Photo: Graham Watson

U.S. Postal finished with eight riders, after losing Spaniard Benjamin Nozal in the first 20km, just after they passed the first time check in fifth place, down 37 seconds to Illes Balears, which clocked 21:22.

But after reportedly saving their strong men for the latter half, the Posties were soon back in command, passing the 42km mark in front with a time of 41:28.

If Armstrong was content with the new arrangements, other teams may have been less so, after some top riders finished behind their teams’ fifth man and found themselves being given their real times, not a reconfigured one.

Three examples were Italy’s Gilberto Simoni (Saeco) who was docked 2:42, rather than his team’s 1:30; Spain’s Carlos Sastre (CSC), who lost 1:49 instead of 0:50; and Australia’s Brad McGee (Fdjeux.com), who lost a massive 7:36 instead of his team’s maximum three-minute drop.

For U.S. Postal’s two main rivals for the overall victory – Phonak and T-Mobile – the day was not without trouble, either. Nor was it for Illes Balears, which lost two riders.

Phonak, after suffering five flat tires in the first 20 km, losing four riders and nearly a fifth, did very well to finish second – a final result that saw them improve from fourth fastest at 42km to second-quickest over the last 22km.

“We had to wait for Santos Gonzalez and Nicolas Jalabert, which probably cost us half a minute,” said Hamilton afterwards. “I almost came to a complete stop, but realized it was worth stopping to wait for them. After that, we found our rhythm and fought to the bitter end. I’m proud of what we did.”

Not that stopping for the pair totally ended the team’s woes. Jalabert was one of the four who finished three minutes or more adrift. And while Gonzalez did cross the finish with Hamilton, he had handlebar problems all the way.

As for Ullrich, had T-Mobile ridden 12 seconds faster to place second, he would have lost 20 seconds instead of 40 and would be sixth overall at 25 seconds to Armstrong rather than 16th at 55.

Their troubles came early when T-Mobile also dropped two riders – Giuseppe Guerini and Sergei Ivanov – and was only ninth fastest at the first time check at 19km. They did not wait for Guerini, but sat up to allow Rolf Aldag to rejoin because of his greater value as a time trialist – a move that paid off. The German team dug in quickly and was third best at 42km before fading slightly in the final split to record the fourth best time.

“We waited for Rolf because he is so important for the team in this discipline,” said Ullrich, admitting the wet and slipper weather brought back memories of his crash in the penultimate stage of last year’s Tour, the final time trial at Nantes.

“At every turn I was thinking about last year. As a result, I was very careful. I didn’t want to fall again.”

Thursday’s fifth stage, Armstrong’s first this year wearing the yellow jersey, is a 200.5km ride over mainly flat terrain from Amiens to Chartres.


Results are posted. To see how today’s stage unfolded, simply open our LIVE UPDATE WINDOW.

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